This romantic verse is dated to the late 14th Century, but it may have developed a bit earlier. The author of the piece remains as “anonymous”; however many scholars view the author of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” to be the same as the author of “Pearl,” another poem of merit from the time period.
The metric romance is composed of staves in varying length, with each stave ending in five short rhyming lines, known as a bob and wheel. The lines forming the stave do not rhyme, but are alliterative, nonetheless. The original dialect used in the poem was that of West Midland, likely from the area around Lancashire and is difficult to understand by the modern ear. We must recall that English language was in that VERY early stage of development at the time.
Some have compared the temptation of the hero’s honour as a reflection of the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, a motif often employed by Medieval writers and occurs in what scholars call the Launfal group of stories. However, certain points of interest have modern scholars of English literature questioning the grouping. A main difference in the story line is the fact that the Green Knight’s wife acts with the knowledge and encouragement of her husband, rather than the actual seduction episode.
From The Camelot Project, we read, ” In my Studies on the Legend of Sir Gawain, already referred to, I have suggested that the character of the lady here is, perhaps, a reminiscence of that of the Queen of the Magic Castle or Isle, daughter or niece of an enchanter, who at an early stage of Gawain’s story was undoubtedly his love. I think it not impossible that she was an integral part of the tale as first told, and her rôle here was determined by that which she originally played. In most versions of the story she has dropped out altogether. It is, of course, possible that, there being but a confused reminiscence of the original tale, her share may have been modified by the influence of the Launfal group; but I should prefer to explain the episode on the whole as a somewhat distorted survival of an original feature.
“But in any case we may be thankful for this, that the author of the most important English metrical romance dealing with Arthurian legend faithfully adheres to the original conception of Gawain’s character, as drawn before the monkish lovers of edification laid their ruthless hands on his legend, and turned the model of knightly virtues and courtesy into a mere vulgar libertine.
“Brave, chivalrous, loyally faithful to his plighted word, scrupulously heedful of his own and others’ honour, Gawain stands before us in this poem. We take up Malory or Tennyson, and in spite of their charm of style, in spite of the halo of religious mysticism in which they have striven to enwrap their characters, we lay them down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. How did the Gawain of their imagination, this empty-headed, empty-hearted worldling, cruel murderer, and treacherous friend, ever come to be the typical English hero? For such Gawain certainly was, even more than Arthur himself. Then we turn back to these faded pages, and read the quaintly earnest words in which the old writer reveals the hidden meaning of that mystic symbol, the pentangle, and vindicates Gawain’s title to claim it as his badge–and we smile, perhaps, but we cease to wonder at the widespread popularity of King Arthur’s famous nephew, or at the immense body of romance that claims him as its hero.”The story goes as such… On New Year’s Day, King Arthur sits down to break his fast, but it was his custom not to eat on a holiday until some knightly tale was told or a joust was held. A huge man enters the hall. He is clad all in free and he rides a horse with green trappings. The stranger rides the horse to the dais where Arthur sat with his knights. The man challenges anyone to hit him a blow with the huge axe he carries. He would then claim the right to return a like blow to his challenger’s neck at the end of one day and one year. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge in Arthur’s name. Sir Gawain beheads the Green Knight, but the knight picks up his head, mounts his horse, and tells Gawain he will expect him at the Green Chapel on the appointed day. Then the Green Knight rides away.
Gawain goes searching for the Green Chapel when his time is due. He carries an embroidered shield, known as a pentangle with him. After much searching, Sir Gawain discovers a castle in woods on Christmas Eve, where a knight and his lady provide Gawain with shelter. The knight of the castle tells Sir Gawain he will lead Sir Gawain to the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day. The two men make an agreement: the castle’s lord would go hunting each day and give his catch to Sir Gawain; Sir Gawain would remain at the castle and give the lord whatever he received at the castle. For three days, the lord’s wife comes to Gawain’s bed and begs him to make love to her.
Day 1, Gawain receives one kiss from the mistress of the house, which he presents to his host, while Gawain receives hinds. Day 2, Gawain passes along 2 kisses and receives a boar. On Day 3, Gawain receives 3 kisses and a magic belt from the lady and a fox from the master of the house, but he only passes along the three kisses.
On New Year’s Day, a servant leads Gawain to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight is sharpening his blade. When time comes for the beheading, Gawain flinches at the first strike and the blade misses. The second stroke misses him completely. The third severs his skin, but does not take his life. The Green Knight says the misses were for the first two nights and Gawain’s truthful response in returning the kisses. The third blow is a symbol of Gawain’s half truths. The Green Knight admits he is the lord of the castle and that the “test” was arranged by Merlin’s mistress, who despised Arthur. Gawain returns to Arthur’s hall wearing the embroidered girdle as a symbol of his weakness.
The Pentangle shield supposedly represented Gawain’s frankness, fellowship, purity, courtesy, and compassion.
The chief theme of the piece is the code of chivalry. Gawain’s adherence to the virtues expected of a knight in King Arthur’s court is tested throughout the poem, but the poem does more than discuss Gawain’s virtue: It asks if virtue can exist in a fallen world. Gawain learns he possesses the foibles of all humans, but he can continue to strive fro the perfection of living a chivalrous life.
“The Green Knight admits he is the lord of the castle and that the “test” was arranged by Merlin’s mistress, who despised Arthur. Gawain returns to Arthur’s hall wearing the embroidered girdle as a symbol of his weakness.”
When teaching Brit Lit I always include this tale as it provides such a good example of the Arthurian cycle, but I have not incorporated the above idea. It makes a lot of sense, though, and I will use it in future classes. Thanks for this informative post!
I also taught Brit. Lit, Regina. The many interpretations of the story are quite fascinating.
When I taught “Beowulf,” I would ask my students to place Beowulf on trial for the murder of the monster. It was quite enlightening to see how they viewed the action. The groups acted out the trial scenes, with particular points of law I shared prior to the assignment. Some saw Beowulf at the perpetrator and some thought more along the lines of a “stand your ground” encounter. They would argue that if a wild animal attacked a human, was it is out of evil or instinct? Their conclusions led to lots of hearty discussions.
Thank you Regina for this clear summary. Enjoyed reading this.
I am revisiting much of my undergraduate degree, Jackie. I am surprised how much I forgot of the pieces I did not teach during my years in the classroom.
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